How Would You Handle this Situation -Should I Encourage Upgrading A Non Orthodox Conversion?

Charnie sent in the following question looking for insight from our readers.

What a great idea it is to pick everyone’s collective brain here! So here’s an issue weighing on my mind.

I have some cousins who live in upstate NY with whom I’m very close. The husband is very involved in his Reform synagogue and has, at times, said how he admires my husband and I and our commitment to Torah Jewry. His wife (my cousin by marriage) is an absolutely delightful woman of whom I’m very fond.

Here’s the problem – her mother isn’t Jewish, her father is, she had a Reform conversion. So technically, of course, neither she nor their 10 year old daughter are Jewish, although they absolutely consider themselves as such. The daughter attends the Hebrew Day School in their community, which has Jewish children running the gamut from Chabad to Reform as there aren’t enough Jews in their city to split them up by denominations, maybe something the rest of us could learn from in terms of Ahavas Yisrael. This woman is probably the most knowledgeable cousin I have on that side of the family in terms of Jewish observance, and is definitely the only one I’d trust in my kitchen because, although she doesn’t keep a kosher home, she does know about how it’s done.

My dilemma is: Can she be encouraged to “upgrade” her conversion? We were speaking the other day and she mentioned she might like to come to NYC during the last days of Pesach. Without thinking, I told her we’d be delighted and then, upon hanging up the phone, remembered that there are serious halachic issues about hosting a non-Jew for Yom Tov. However, to bring these facts up to her would not only insult her but would cause a serious Sholom Bayis issue in the family.

At times I’ve considered ordering “The Bamboo Cradle” from Amazon and sort of sending it to her by mistake, making it look like it was intended for someone else (like have a gift card with someone else’s name on it), and then just hoping maybe she’d pick up on the idea of how her conversion isn’t universally recognized. And even if she were to undergo another conversion, that would not change the daughter’s status, which is a whole other “can of worms”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one here with non-Jewish relatives. To me, this cousin’s situation is unique because she absolutely, unequivalently considers herself Jewish, and it is a very important aspect of her life. I don’t doubt at all that at the time she underwent her conversion, she did not know what the ramifications might be, and she’s even joked about how in Israel she wouldn’t be considered Jewish.

What would you recommend?
Looking forward to your comments!

31 comments on “How Would You Handle this Situation -Should I Encourage Upgrading A Non Orthodox Conversion?

  1. Chana (#25)
    There is most certainly a problem here. Sure, the family in question might not care what the “fanatical” orthodox think (especially since in their area the orthodox community is probably quite small), and they might believe that a reform conversion is perfectly valid and just not quite as “deep” as a halachic conversion. And that’s fine for them. But:

    1) what about their kids? Will their kids take rejection by such a large segment of the Jewish world so lightly?

    2) Much more importantly, what about the rest of the Jews who define themselves as reform and conservative? What about the ones who actually are Jewish, and now will have no way to prove it?

    How is a halachically Jewish child of two Jewish parents supposed to prove his or her status? By bringing their parents’ ketuba from the wedding ceremony conducted by the local reform rabbi? There are tens of thousands of non-Jews who married Jews in similar ceremonies, so sorry, the ketuba isn’t proof. Grandparents’ ketuba, if s/he can find it? Same story. Greatgrandparents’ ketuba was probably destroyed in Europe decades ago. So what’s the child to do?

    Basically, there is nothing that can be done. Right now we assume that reform and conservative Jews are actually Jewish, because most are. But IMO in the future that could easily change. I remember sitting at a table with 8 members of the local conservative synagogue. Only three were Jewish. Two were non-Jews who knew they were non-Jews, and three were non-Jews who thought they were Jews. And that was a mostly middle-aged group. Among teens and children the chances of finding someone who’s actually Jewish according to Jewish law are even slimmer. I would say that around 50% of the supposedly Jewish kids at conservative synagogue #2 (not the one I mentioned earlier) are not Jewish.

    So the “problem” is that situations like the one Charnie described are rapidly leading us towards a split in the Jewish people. That’s actually quite a big problem, not only for us fanatical Orthodox, but for any Jew who cares about Jewish unity. Personally, I can very much understand the feelings of families like the one Charnie describes, I don’t blame them for the situation, and I wish them all the best. Still, I plan to ask my children to conduct thorough family tree checks before marrying any Jew from a non-Israeli, non-observant family.

  2. Thought, for some reason or other, I’d bring this thread somewhat more uptodate.

    In comment 14 I referred to a Bar Mitzvah we’d be making. Well, it’s come and gone, and unfortunately, the whole family referred to here became sick (they waited till Motzei Shabbos to call us), so they weren’t able to join us for any part of the festivities.

    Anoynon Jew (if you’re still visiting here), you sound a lot like Groucho Marx. Briefly, there are halachic issues that involve cooking for a non-Jew. Because we do not cook ON Shabbos (and, of course, Jewish women always overcook because we’re sure we won’t have enough food otherwise), we could enjoy Shabbos seudah with this family. Rishona and others, you’re absolutely correct about any change being a family decision, not just the wife’s – although knowing the dynamics of this particular family, the husband would very likely go along with kashrus if she decided to go that way.

    The funny thing is, they actually live in a community where there’s an Orthodox shul in walking distance, and several Shomer Shabbos neighbors. So, they’re near but so far away.

  3. And you mentioned that you’d need to spend a lot more time with them to have that subtle influence. Meanwhile, she couldn’t even sit at your seder table. From her perspective, why should this be an appealing way to turn? Why would trying to get into a club that excludes her be more rewarding to her than her current club which is warm and welcoming to her?

  4. You said: “First of all, we did ask our Rav about having this family over for Yom Tov, and that is how we learned that it is not permitted. I have not spoken to the Rav (yet) about how we might encourage her to upgrade.”

    These two sentences together are quite amusing. You are basically telling her, “I’m sorry, even though we’re both friends and family, you aren’t permitted at my seder table” … and then you think that anything you say is going to entice her to upgrade? Why the heck would she want to “upgrade” to join a club that is snubbing her due to no other reason than an accident of birth?

  5. Chana, I was thinking the very same thing – and surprised that your point wasn’t brought up earlier!

    For 10 years I lived as a Reform Jew (although I didn’t officially “convert” until I was 20 years old). It is one thing for a single ger/giyores to “upgrade” to a halachaic conversion and yet another thing when there is a non-observant partner involved (Jewish or not). When you go before a Beis Din who only follows the laws of the Torah and tell them you wish to convert; you are also implying that you will observe the 613 mitzvot as well as maintaining an optimal environment where you can observe the Torah’s precepts. It is very difficult, if not impossible to have a non-observant mate. I’ve ‘heard’ of stories where someone converted and lived as an Orthodox Jew and either their mate was not observant or went off the derech or something like that. But it becomes very problematic in relation to the validity of the conversion.

    Both your cousin and his wife must commit to maintaining a fully kosher home; complete with being located in the community, taharas hamispacha, sending children to Orthodox day schools, etc. In some cases, the Beis Din will not even consider the non-Jew for conversion unless this two-fold commitment can be verified. It is one thing to have “Jewish knowledge” but quite another to be willing to give up many things simply because, “the Torah says so”.

    I myself struggled with this during the chag. I went to Pennsylvania to visit my family; but stay in the frum community for yom tovim and Shabbat so instead of a 10 day vacation with them, it was a 5 day. They could not fully understand why I would travel all that way and spend so little time with them. I could not bear to say no to the lemon merague pie my Grandmother made for me. So what that I left the crust; the intricrate ways of halacha is such that I will never try to balance a chag with my non-Jewish family again. I have not officially converted; the pull from the goyishe world is difficult and painful. It should not be suggested unless the person is truly willing and the probablity for success is great.

    I have no real advice other than do nothing more than casual mention of the issue. I would not press it, because even if the non-Jewish wife is gung-ho you still have your cousin and the children to think about. If they seem like they would rather have the big house in the mixed neighborhood, the 1 day Pesach with a drive up to the Catskills afterward, the dinner’s at Outback Steakhouse, the children taking drama classes instead of studying advanced Chumash; any of this – it’s not worth pursuing. You gain a lot, but the entire family needs to be willing to see that gain. If you were born a non-Jew and wish to become Jewish, it takes so much more than just signing a document, change shul membership, and cut out bacon from your breakfast. You need to acquire and be acquired by a nation that exists outside of physical and ethnic boundaries. It’s a lot to ask from a non-Jew; and should not be asked (in my opinion).

    Oh, and the book is called “Migrant Soul” (the book of the Native American convert) written by Avi Shafran (I believe). Great story. But a bit different in that both the pratagonist and his born-Jewish wife wanted to leave Conservative Judaism and live a Torah-observant life.

  6. Are the halachic issues regarding hosting a non-Jew on Pesach all that large? I know plenty of frum Jews who have no problems inviting non-Jewish friends or those who consider themselves Jewish according to Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist tradition.

  7. There’s no “problem” in the scenario described. It’s not of much relevance to most Reform Jews whether Orthodox Jews consider them Jewish or not. They are, they participate as they see fit in Reform Jewish life. If and when they have a child who marries someone who is more observant, at that point the (now adult) child can determine if he or she wishes to undergo a “deeper” conversion, or if the O Jew wishes to practice R. The problem is not caused by the patrilineal descent; it’s caused by O lack of recognition of R conversions. If a halachically Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman and they raise their children Jewish, it makes not one whit of difference if the mother converted R prior to the child’s birth – the children won’t be considered Jewish anyway without an O conversion. And why would a Reform Jewish man want his wife to undergo an O conversion and pledge to uphold something he himself doesn’t? Anyway, this is all a tempest in a teapot.

  8. GMS – you refer to this family being on the beginning of their BT journey. All I can say to that is halevih (sic). As mentioned, we’d need to spend a lot more time with them to have that subtle influence, and they live a good 6 hours away, so visits are too few and far between – especially with the husband’s work schedule.
    Re the g’zairah of cooking before Yom Tov, it can be complicated, because we can’t even make a cup of tea for her, something that could easily be inadvertently forgotten – just like that oil lamp on Shabbos.

  9. Rabbi Simenowitz – I stand corrected.

    My formulation of the g’zeira as “Don’t cook just for yourself and not the non-Jew, lest you add extra for the non-Jew” is inaccurate. The gezeira is “Don’t INVITE the non-Jew on Yom Tov, lest you cook extra for him”. This is the normative halacha as brought down in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 512:1. “Aiva”, Menias (preventing) Simchas Yom Tov, and unwanted guests (probably my friend’s case) are factors that a competent Posek may consider beyond the normative halacha.

    Thank you for helping clarify.
    Sorry to all for the misinformation.

  10. Dear Charnie,
    I don’t have my own advice, just my own frustration. My brother insists that his non-Jewish wife and kids are Jewish because there was once legitimacy to patrilinial descent. They are insulted to no end that we do not consider my sister-in-law and nephews Jewish. What a rift it’s caused!

  11. Ruby – we are saying essentially the same thing – the reason for the g’zairah is because Akum is typically not considered w/in the catagory of “m’zonosayich alayich” (where you are charged with their care) so Chazal were afraid of adding on their behalf (it is the difference between shechting a cow on shabbos for a sick person and eating from the meat vs cooking for the sick person and not being allowed to – same g’zeira – trust me :))

    IMHO the heter would most probably lie somewhere within the “aiva” (deliberately left untranslated) battleground. My rebbe was a talmid of R’ Shlomo Zalman. There is a famous story where RSZ gave someone who wouldn’t have otherwise made a bracha a drink – he explained that the person should not have a negative opinion of frum Jews – so there’s some wiggle room if truly necessary – but with guidance as always – good luck – these are not easy waters to navigate

  12. Rabbi Simenowitz,

    The g’zeira to which you refer is “Don’t cook just for yourself and not the non-Jew, lest you add extra for the non-Jew”. The analagous case to the amora with the oil would be to say “I will cook just for myself – despite the g’zeira – and not add extra”. Guess what I might end up doing… The approach of not cooking at all, like on Shabbos, does not tread on the g’zeira.

    You are, of course, 100% correct that one should consult a competent Posek before taking action. I was suggesting to Charnie that there very well may be a solution to having the realtives for Yom Tov after all.

  13. GMS speaks the absolute truth

    Remember – in kiruv as in comedy, timing is EVERYTHING – something which seems outrageous today may make sense over time or in the right setting – there are no “one size fits all” answers – that is why a Rav who can factor many of the realities on the ground is always a safe harbor and a good idea.

    Ruby – proceed VERY cautiously with that self-help heter. You are essentailly correct that the g’zeira (rabbinic decree) was enacted to proscribe cooking more than the “ochel nefesh” – food required to enjoy yom tov. In American law we have a ruke of construction “cessant ratione, cessat et ipso lex” – whn the reason for the rule ceases, the rule also ceases. This does not always take place with rabbinical g’zeiros however. The gemara tells the story of an amora who read by an oil light on shabbos despite a g’zeira to the contrary (lest one come to tilt the lamp) – guess what he did? you got it – he tilted! (or went to tilt) and ended up undertaking to bring a big fat chatas (sin-offering) when the temple is rebuilt. It sounds attractive but run it by a Posek you feel comfortable with.
    B’hatzlacha and chag kasher v’sameach

  14. Everyone’s experience is different, and I can only speak to my own situation. I am the daughter of Conservative “converts.” I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t at some level theoreticall aware that there were “fanatic Orthodox people” who didn’t accept my family’s status. When I discovered in college that Orthodox is not always equal to fanatic, I somehow managed to completely repress any awareness of my status for three years or so until I had completed the first part of my “BT journey.” Only when I was more or less secure in my sense of my values and what kind of life I wanted to live, did I rather suddenly become conscious of my state of safek. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life when I was forced to recognize the full implications of my situation, but at that point I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had to continue my relationship with Hashem and Torah no matter what, and I was prepared to do whatever was necessary to deal with it. I had already found a community where I felt comfortable, and I was able to trust my rav and our beit din. I was absolutely terrified that my mother would take the situation as a rejection, but at that point she also had already mostly come to terms with my Orthodox way of life, and was able to respect me for who I was and who I needed to be. I don’t think there is any way that either myself or my family could have handled it as well if it had happened two years earlier, when we were all still dealing with the basics of my observance.

    I believe that if your relatives are beginning a BT journey of their own, it might not be a kindness to them to rub their faces in this mess right away. When they are ready to face facts, they will appreciate all the guidance, love and support you can offer. But if they are not ready, you might just end up scaring them off.


  15. Its hard especially when the family member is close. We have a family member who is not Jewish and it can sometimes bring a bit of a small situation especially around any holiday. We all try to make due, our problem is that if we don’t host things than non of the family would celebrate thus we do all the cooking before hand and thus there is no cooking done on the Yom Tovs. (like what Ruby said) Thanks for posting this, it makes me feel like I’m not the only person in this boat, that a lot of people have to contend with it.

  16. A close friend and knowledgeable Rabbi had the situation of a family member who always came for Yom Tov, and then intermarried. You touched on their solution yourself and you may want to run it by your Rav (I know the women reading this will respond how difficult this would be for a two – or three!! – day Yom Tov). Their solution was to treat Yom Tov like Shabbos in the kitchen, i.e., only heat up food on the blech. The issue is that the allowance for cooking on Yom Tov does not extend to cooking anything extra for non-Jews. But if you don’t cook at all, you just do as you would on Shabbos, then there is no violation.

    A possible, albeit challenging, option for the future.

  17. Thanks so much to all of you. First of all, we did ask our Rav about having this family over for Yom Tov, and that is how we learned that it is not permitted. I have not spoken to the Rav (yet) about how we might encourage her to upgrade. I’ve always felt that if this family lived closer to us, and we could therefore see them more often, we’d probably (well, hopefully) have a positive influence. One of my cousin’s closest friends in her community is the Chabad Rabbi’s wife. However, this Chabad Rabbi holds differently then our Rav about inviting non-Jews for Yom Tov. By the way, the halachic issues involved here would not apply if we could get them over for a Shabbos. We are hoping that when we make our next Bar Mitzvah this coming year, they will be able to join us in our community for Shabbos – after all, there’s nothing like a Jewish simcha! A lot will have to do with whether or not the husband can get off from work on Saturday. When they make a Bas Mitzvah in 2 years, I know they will not be insulted if I pass because its Reform, etc. They really do understand that we’re very sincere, and that’s been a big connection for all of us.

  18. I have a similar situation, but it blew up in the opposite direction… My brother-in-law (affliation: Reformed; Jewish knowledge: none) fell for a Frum Catholic girl. She was willing to convert until she saw the travesty that was reform Judiasm. My brother-in-law has no desire to become observant, so she still goes to church.

    Too bad my Mother-in-law is anti-religious.. It is going to be a nightmare when children show up..

    Good luck with this issuse. I have taken the stance that my intermarried friends and relatives are not welcome at my Seder table (and the obvious flak from the In-laws)


  19. Charnie,

    I second pretty much everything Warren said. My wife had a Conservative conversion (this is a few years before we met). As she continued to learn and grow and discover that even the Conservative rabbi didn’t believe in things she thought fundamental, she realized on her own that she needed to convert-‘again’. That’s what she did; and someone meanwhile made a shidduch… :-).

    If your cousin follows a similar (potentially long) path, she’ll come to her own conclusions. If not, there’s little you’ll likely succeed in doing, other than create animosities. Things will, of course, be complicated by their children, celebrations, etc.

    Years ago I heard an Israeli rav say about American Jewry, “ein bayit asher ein sham meit” (there is no home that doesn’t have a ‘death’/loss). It’s a painful (not meant to be offensive) observation; and it describes the reality that nearly every one of us has to continually live with to a greater or lesser degree.

    Have an excellent Pesah, may Hashem grant us all a complete redemption speedily and soon!

  20. Dear Charnie,

    I read this blog fairly regularly and was alerted to your question by a very close friend of mine who is a contributor to this blog. He brought this matter to my attention because my wife and I have had some experience with some similar issues.

    To make a VERY long story short, my wife had previously undergone a conversion and eventually had to undergo ANOTHER because the first one was performed before she was knowledgeable as to what constitutes a valid conversion. The end result was that although we were not aware of the invalidity of the conversion when we got married, as we got more into Torah and Mitzvot and learned more, after several years we became aware of the problem. There was no question in our minds that the new/reconversion had to be done (which it was, several years after we got married).

    First, let me say that you (or your counsin!) should feel free to respond to me and to go into the particulars w/me or my wife off line, if that would make you feel more comfortable. Because there are a lot of details I have left out for the sake of brevity.

    I agree w/the others that you should NOT send the book “by accident” or in any other way. And anyway, there is more appropriate book (I think it’s called “Nomadic Jew,” about a non-Jew of American Indian-Portuguese descent who first converts and becomes Reform, but eventually becomes Orthodox) that is more on point.

    I think you should consult w/a Rav experinced in Kiruv, but it seems to me that Sephardi Lady’s suggestion makes the most sense: if she learns more, she will then naturally understand the issue and desire on her own to undergo a conversion that all Jews recognize.

    I think this is an extremely important point that you raise, because due to all the intermarriages this situation is likely to increasingly arise.


  21. This is an extremely sensitive issue and a very sad one as well. A child is born to a conservative or reform convert mother. Hence the child is not halachically Jewish. However; s/he goes to Hebrew school, has a bar/bat mitzvah, goes on a teen tour to Israel; his/her whole existence is as a Jew. One day this child grows up wants to make aliya, marry a somewhat observant Jew, or become observant themselves and BOOM. We have an identity crisis. This is an extremely sad phenomenon to our time. Unfortunately I have thought about this predicament but have no solutions. As far as Charnie’s situation, it could get ugly if he opens his mouth. As you explained the “convert” often times is more “Jewish” then the spouse and for you to say that the person is not Jewish it can cause a great amount of negative feelings towards you not just from the individual but from the entire family. Be very careful. Does anyone have ideas of how to fix the conversion problem?

  22. Maybe if you encouraged her to pursue more learning, as she is already fairly knowledgable and interested already, her observance would increase along with her learning and she would reach the conclusion that you have already reached: that she would be beter served by a more recognized conversion.

  23. as for the halachik issues surrounding having a non-Jew over during a chag, You should ask that shailah to your rav right away. There is room to be maikel, especially since this is a shalom bayis issue. I’m not a rabbi, so I’m definitely not giving psak by any stretch of the imagination. The issue seems to be causing you a significant amount of worry, so do yourself a favor and ask the shailah!

  24. “Accidentally” sending her the book would be a huge mistake. Don’t do it!! She would get the impression that the issue makes you *so* uncomfortable that it would be impossible for you to discuss the issue with her. If she’s as familiar with Jewish tradition as she seems to be, I’m sure she’s at least heard that “some crazy, intolerant, Orthodox Jews” would consider her and her children not to be Jewish. You’re better off having the issue come up in coversation one-on-one. I have an old friend whose father is Jewish but his mother isn’t. We ended up working down the street from each other a few years ago, and we got together for lunch quite often. Jewish topics naturally came up, and I ended up telling him that although I respect him and enjoy his company, I do not consider him to be Jewish, since to be Jewish, there are set legal (Halachic) requirements, such as x, y, z.

    I understand you have shalom bayis concern that did not apply to my situation, but there’s my two cents.

  25. Often, people can be too shy to ask a Rav a sensitive halachic question, especially when they feel his answer could be hard or even painful to implement. Perhaps, commenters here could propose strategies to overcome this shyness.

    In situations I run into, I usually have an idea as to which Rav to ask, depending on the subject matter. But not everyone has such familiarity.

  26. I hope in all these types of questions posed here, the questioner will ask a Rav. What we possibly can accomplish here is to flesh out some ideas, so that the person can ask better questions.

  27. I tend to agree with Bob about this being very particular question the answer to which is determined by the personalities and relationships of the people involved.

    One think I think I would not do is “accidentally” send her the book. If she has a hint of what you did she may take it the wrong way and come to the conclusion that you would “lie” or otherwise bend the truth in order to get her to “upgrade”. That would be a tremendous chillul hashem (especially since she respects you so much and since (I’m assuming) you are the only frum person with which she has a close relationship).

  28. I don’t know if we can offer a general answer to this question, because so many details about the people involved are critical. To start, it might be best to approach a Rav you trust, to see what might be done in this specific situation.

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